Third of Yellowstone Elk Habitat Not Protected from Development
Written by Caleb Nelson on January 5, 2023
More than a third of all known elk habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remains open for human development, according to new analysis recently published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation.
Dr. Laura Gigliotti, the report’s author, said data collected shows which of the park’s 26 herds are most vulnerable at different points along their migration corridors. She explained elk play a major role in one of the last remaining intact ecosystems on the planet.
“And it has this large diversity of not only migratory ungulates but large predators, and all these different species that are coexisting in this ecosystem,” Gigliotti points out. “If we lose one aspect of that ecosystem, we’re losing this really valuable resource.”
The elk habitat at risk sits outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, which has been protected for the past 150 years and is privately owned with no zoning.
Wyoming has worked to protect migration corridors on private lands. Gov. Mark Gordon recently approved a new partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture which offers landowners incentives to support critical wildlife habitat for elk and other migratory species.
As parcels of land adjacent to Yellowstone become more valuable to developers, conservationists worry subdivided land could impact the long-term health of herds. Gigliotti’s research showed elk can thrive on private lands, and can tolerate some level of human development.
“But what we typically see is that when we get to about 1% to 2% development in an area, we start to see animals start to avoid those areas,” Gigliotti emphasizes.
Under the new partnership, private landowners in Wyoming can elect to tap federal dollars to replace five-strand barbed wire, which is one of the biggest barriers facing elk Gigliotti explains.
“It might be restricting movement routes of where animals can go in the environment,” Gigliotti cautions. “One way to make this better is either to use wildlife-friendly fencing or remove fences that aren’t really serving a purpose on the landscape.”
The research also indicates that one of the most effective strategies for wildlife conservation has been the establishment of “protected areas” or PAs, which serves to protect habitats, species, and ecological processes. While PAs are often treated as a single conservation strategy, they are often established for a variety of reasons.
PAs have been established to conserve ecosystems and their constituent species, protect specific threatened species, and provide ecosystem services in addition to being set up for cultural and social reasons.